Mikhail Glinka: Una vita per lo zar (A Life for the Tsar, originally titled Ivan Susanin) (1836)

Opera in four acts and an epilogue. Running Time: 2 hours 9 minutes.

Since OperaScribe is actually reviewing the real Russian opera, I decided not to steal the limelight too much and present it in an Italian format. Why are so many Russian operas performed in Italian? Possibly a Western attempt to overcome the language barrier. Given the fact that Glinka was parodying Italian and to a lesser extent French techniques here I don’t think the translations adulterates the music too much. Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani is Antonida with Boris Christoff in the title role of Susanin.

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SETTING: Russia and Poland, the winter of 1612-13. A-plot, the entire Polish aristocracy conspires amid glorious dance music the assassination of Mikhail Romanov, tsar elect of all the Russians. B-plot (most of it) Ivan Susanin’s daughter Antonida keeps getting her wedding postponed and eventually loses her father to Polish soldiers when he leads them into a snow storm so they don’t kill the Tsar.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXU7w2tiPS0

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: The village of Domnino. (34 minutes)

0: The overture * is long and mostly consists of standard Italianate stock gestures except for a single tune that pops in about two and a half minutes in and is not infrequently repeated. The tune itself is rather recognizable but the rest of the overture (apart from one other very low brooding bit that will come back in act four) is rather uneventful even if it is good Western parody.

9: The opening chorus is very Russian and very a cappella ** at first although when the sequence gains orchestral accompaniment I am not going to complain.

15, 19: Antonida’s opening aria * in which she sets up a lot of the romantic plot. Her fiance Sobinin has been fighting for the Tsar (what else?) and she has been lonely for him but he is returning that very day. It is full of pseudo-bel canto fioratura and a not bad orchestral accompaniment. The Italian text used here actually helps to accentuate rather than deter from the music. Her father, Ivan Susanin, arrives with news * that the dreaded Poles threaten Moscow (because this opera is Russian they are dreaded Poles), and because of this bad news Antonida’s wedding to Sobinin is off for the time being (because dread Poles, darn it!).

21: The arrival of Sobinin to the Russian equivalent of a barcarole ** (the rowers chorus), he brings news that Moscow is safe but Susanin is  skeptical of how Russia can be victorious without a Tsar.

26: We enter a standard recitative and then a very Italianate trio ** as the lovers lament their fate but Susanin promises that the two will be wed, at some point.

32: Sobinin changes things by telling Susanin that “their boyar” will soon be crowned in Moscow, and with that Susanin changes his mind and agrees to the wedding, and everyone rejoices *. The act fades out.

ACT 2: A ball at the fortress of Polish commander. (8 minutes)

0, 3: Stand by for what I consider to be the best act in the entire opera ***. This is the original Polish Act, (take that Mussorgsky!). Although obviously meant to parody the obnoxiously obligatory ballet in French grand opera, here it actually contributes both to the plot and to an historical view of just what Russians in the 19th century thought of all things Polish (not very good, I’m afraid). We start off with a grand choral Polonaise followed by three more Polish dances (Krakowiak, a waltz, and a rather well known mazurka ***).

6: A messenger bursts in with news that the Poles have been defeated and Mikhail Romanov has been elected tsar, although he does not yet know this, as he has been secluded at Kostroma. A detachment of Polish soldiers vow to kill Romanov, the remaining Poles continue their dancing, certain of Russian defeat and Polish conquest ***. (In reality this act is about 20 minutes in length, but it appears that the Krakowiak and waltz along with a portion of the vow sequence has been cut). I am rather certain that in the vast majority of Soviet era recordings the Poles were meant to represent the evils of the Great Whore, Capitalism, and not an anti-Tsarist threat.

ACT 3: Susanin’s cottage. (36 minutes)

0: A very emotional entr’acte *.

3, 5: Vanya’s sad little aria * as he thinks over how Susanin adopted him after his mother was killed. In its own mild way very sweet. Ivan himself enters and the boy vows that when he is old enough he will fight for the Tsar as well ** (because Tsarist propaganda).

9: A chorus of working men bid Susanin good day on their way to work * and he invites them all to that evening’s wedding breakfast.

10: The happiness quartet *** as the happy family of four come together to express their joy about the wedding/new fearless leader.

18: Next, Glinka commits a musical abortion by using the dance music from the Polish act as a leitmotif for the Polish soldiers who come to destroy Mikhail Romanov *. I know that Glinka did this in order to pass the Poles off as wealthy pin-heads but it also defuses any real sense of impending doom/dead/murder/bloodthirstiness one would expect by having the Polish soldiers break in and order Ivan to show them the way to the Tsar. He prevaricates, telling Vanya to leave for Kostroma to warn the Tsar, and pretends to consent to leading the Poles to Romanov.

24: Antonida salvages things with her return ** and her terrified reaction to the fact that her father is about to go off with Polish soldiers. He tells her to have the wedding without him and she is left alone to contemplate.

28: A very Russian sounding Bridal Chorus *** in 5/4 time.

31: Antonida’s grief aria **.

34: That very tuneful frenic melody from the overture returns as Sobinin arrives with men promising to find more men so they can rescue Susanin. This is the climax of the act dramatically ***.

ACT 4 & EPILOGUE: (51 minutes)

ACT 4: (34 minutes)

Scene 1: The Gates of Kostroma monastery.

(This is the alternate opening scene from 1837, in 1836 the opening was the same scene as the second, but starting with Sobinin rallying followers to save Susanin and then his rather dapper reflections of Antonida, apparently we needed an aria concertante for the contralto instead, so there you are!). 

3: After a mild prelude Vanya comes on and bangs on the gates rather ornerly. His aria is rather fetching **, however, a saves the scene.

7: The inhabitants of the monastery (male and female?) awake and Vanya alerts them to the fact that the Tsar is in immediate danger **. An ensemble worthy of Donizetti or Bellini.

Scene 2: A forest glade.

10, 13: An entr’acte * leads to the Polish soldiers (with their zinger zapped) and Susanin trekking it through the snow * to a drifting melody.

16, 21, 24: Ivan reflects that because of his sacrifice, his Tsar is safe **. This goes on a very long time as Susanin contemplates G-d, his daughter’s wedding which he will never see, the saving of the Tsar’s life, the fact that his own life will be taken by the Poles at dawn. He watches as the Polish soldiers sleep and waits for the sunrise. Things turn a little more upbeat (briefly) * but then turn ornery before returning to a nature tune with spinning flute dancing about. After a lot of a cappella singing we get the closest thing to an Italian-style aria, and it is very good ** with clarinet in the background sadly moving back and forth with the vocal line.

27, 29, 31, 33: Glinka gets creative with the wind machine *, the Poles wake up to that one great menacing tune from the overture ** (along with some of their dance tunes). Ivan tells them that they are all screwed **, and they furiously kill him *.

EPILOGUE: Red Square, Moscow. (17 minutes)

0: We start off with yet another entr’acte *, it climaxes effectively.

2: Slavsya chorus **. If you have EVER seen a Russian movie set in the Tsarist era or several other Russian operas, you have heard this tune and it will be very familiar.

4, 8: Sobinin, Antonida, and Vanya arrive and tell everyone about Susanin’s heroic death ***. No grand tune, but the way Glinka harmonizes the three high voices is wonderful, and then contrasts them with the bass chorus. Each of the surviving soloists take a turn, first Sobinin, then Vanya, at last Antonida *, who relates the events surrounding her father’s murder. This goes on for a very long time and doesn’t seem to go anywhere musically although it is nice to get some character emotions.

13: The finale *** a repeat of the Slavsya with Antonida doing some grand whirling scales with the chorus. It wins you over in the last seventy seconds, just before one last bang out of the Slavsya and the curtain falls.

COMMENTS:

This opera, this opera. There are great things about it and then also rather boring things about it. Even with almost forty minutes cut, the opera’s plot feels very stretched out. There really isn’t much storyline, not even a love triangle, just a postponed wedding and a failed assassination attempt leading to the murder of an old man in the woods. The rest is just pro-tsarist/anti-Polish propaganda, although Glinka does do one thing right, and that is effectively allow his characters to express their emotions, especially Antonida and Susanin himself. There is a lot of great music, particularly the arias and dances/choral pieces, but also very odd things like the return of the dance music as a leitmotif for the Polish soldiers, the overture (apart from two themes) is rather lumpy, and some of the ensembles can feel deathly slow. And yet, Glinka does draw at least three if not four of his named protagonists extremely well, Antonida especially is a flesh and blood human being capable of intense wild ranging emotions, her father (in spite of his hyper-nationalism) is equally relatable although his emotional range is not so wide, and Vanya is (if a slight operatic conceit) still a well articulated character. Much of this can be attributed to Glinka’s rather successful work at parodying Italian opera. The Poles are obviously the most artificial, but their role is more as a prop and apart from the brief exchange between the messenger and the Commander they function rather akin to the Borg from Star Trek rather than as individuals. I’m a little divided on what grade to give this opera, I could go as low as a B or as high as an A-, so I’ll average it out at a B+.

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6 thoughts on “Mikhail Glinka: Una vita per lo zar (A Life for the Tsar, originally titled Ivan Susanin) (1836)

  1. You’re cheating by listening to it in Italian – and in an abridged version, at that! The only true way to listen to Russian opera is while standing in the freezing snow of a Muscovite winter, the wolves howling under the trees, three sheets to the wind on vodka.

    I watched two-thirds of the Bolshoi DVD – where the Act II ballet lasts half an hour.

    I’ll get back to it some day.

    Like

  2. You are probably right, this review is rather terrible. It isn’t as if I haven’t seen the 1992 Bolshoi production as well (act 2 is actually 25 minutes). Thanks for the like though!

    I might update this to the Bolshoi production at some point (I’d especially like to add in more of Sobinin, he seems almost non-existent here).

    Like

  3. Yeah, I checked the video when I wrote, it starts at about 40 minutes in and ends second past the 65 minute mark, 25 minutes. I personally really like the ballet music, but I guess it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

    Like

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